Interview: The emergence and rise of triple-threat actor Jay Armstrong Johnson

Jay Armstong Johnson. Photos by the author.

Jay Armstrong Johnson is on his way
Interview with Larry Murray

(A second interview with Jay Armstrong Johnson, done shortly after On the Town opened, can be found here.)

Everyone is talking about his turn in Sweeney Todd, Live from Lincoln Center which was telecast on September 26, 2014. In that performance he showcases his singing and acting talents. In his recent show on Broadway, On the Town, you could see him as a consummate dancer as well. And one of the funniest comedians around. Triple threat? Absolutely. Maybe even a quadruple threat. Is there anything this guy can’t do?

I first met him up in Weston, Vermont at the Playhouse where he was Link in Hairspray.

He then starred in the title role of the Nikos Tsakalakos musical Pool Boy at Barrington Stage in 2010, and then returned in On the Town in 2013, and let there be no doubt, Jay Armstrong Johnson’s star is on the rise. A twitching, pulsating bundle of energy, he is young, restless and not easily bruised. Along with the raves came some critical darts which stung, but it’s part of the growing process he says.

Just 22 when this was written, Johnson was born and raised in Fort Worth, “right in the middle of the city,” and moved to New York to study and begin his career right out of high school. He received a music talent scholarship at NYU, and a National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts merit award in spoken/musical theatre. He was voted the top understudy in New York, and the NYC Dance Alliance named him the Senior Outstanding Dancer and gave him their Triple Threat Award.

The actor has been performing for just ten years, and most of that in school and community productions. He started at age 12 with Kids Who Care and then did regional theatre at Casa Manana in Fort Worth while in high school where he received his equity card at age 17. Yet it is only in the past two or three years that his real training, and his trials by critical fire have begun.

When he first came to this part of the country, it was to the Weston, Vermont playhouse where he played Link in Hairspray with Marissa Perry as Tracy Turnblad. “Marissa is one of my best friends now, she went to Broadway straight after the Weston run,” Jay adds. They often appear at benefits together. (Broadway Speaks OUT, Broadway Impact.)

“Weston was the first time I got to play a leading role in a regional theatre, other than Casa Manana and so it was huge for me,” but nothing could have prepared him for the ordeals of building a new musical from the ground up.

Jay Armstrong Johnson in Pool Boy at Barrington Stage Co. Photo Kevin Sprague.

The Pool Boy Story

Pulling Pool Boy together is a classic example of bringing a musical to life. It’s a complicated process, much of it trial and error, and so an actor has to expect daily changes. In an earlier interview with Nikos Tsakalakos the Pool Boy composer talked about the daily changes being made by him and Janet Allard to songs and book and how Johnson always gave his all, even in rehearsal. Even so, all those changes had to be difficult.

“That’s what the workshop process is all about,” Jay responded matter-of-factly. “The story changed so much since the first day, and some of those who were critical did not look at this as a workshop process, but as a final product. This is the first of many steps.” Jay observed. The critics seemed to treat it as if the show was frozen in stone, but yet just about every musical that aims for Broadway spends months in workshop and previews. “If it wants to go to Broadway, it’s going to evolve, and on a much bigger scale.”

So, I asked, what has the experience been like for you? “It’s the hardest thing I have ever done so far,” he answered simply. “I thought being an understudy on Broadway was hard, that nothing could top that.” It’s tough being the lead in a brand new production. “Yeah, with all the changes that were made, new songs, new lyrics being added every day, it was the most daunting process I have ever had to go through. Normally an actor uses the rehearsal process to create a character. This was not possible since things were changing daily, and just now, a couple of weeks into the run, I am just finding out who this kid is, It’s so important to live with the role, to see who this person is without having to incorporate so many changes at the same time. Two weeks into the run the lines are set, so the depth is increasing each day.

“They promised not to change it drastically once it opened, so now we can sink our teeth into the characters, even as we identify things need to be changed and improved. When and if Pool Boy continues on its journey those changes will be made.” The search for the perfect blend of music, lyrics and book continues, but for all the mixed reviews, it is a far, far more finished product than it was at its staged reading a year ago. Without the Musical Theatre Lab, and its mentor, Bill Finn, it would still be just an unrealized idea.

So what did you see when you approached your part? “When I looked at the song list before we even got into rehearsal, my first reaction was ‘are you kidding…’ There were over twenty songs, and I was part of 80% of them, So I knew I had my work cut out for me, but nobody could have predicted that the show would be changing so much. It simply needed to be.”

Given all the difficulties of pulling the show together, has the experience helped Johnson to grow? “Immensely. Even if I didn’t have Danielle Topol as the director I might have gone off the deep end a little bit, she was so positive and charged about this show, and took care of us so well that we felt like we had a leader who believed in us, so we believed in her and the process that this show had to take. So yeah, I grew a lot, and even more important, I think this is the perfect place for me to be in my career. Right here, right now.

“One of the things that struck me about working with the Barrington Stage team is the high level of participation in the creative process involved. Sometimes working as an actor, you are expected to be just that, to play your part. Here in the Musical Theatre Lab there was more than just a role to do, there was collaboration. As an actor, I had rarely been asked for my opinions before, and it was not only surprising to me, but a revelation. Turns out I love being part of the development process which is something I never really did before.”

It was only a few months ago that Johnson was named the “top understudy” in New York but that honor fades in comparison to being the top player. One of the things about being out there every night is the ability to measure audience reaction. In an informal quiz of the audiences for Pool Boy, about half are new to Barrington Stage Company productions, a sure sign that the show is bringing in new people to the theatre.

“The crowd that really warms up to this show is the 18-35 audience, not withstanding that older folks love it too. Each time we have had a younger audience we have had great responses. Some of our references are very current, like Mortal Combat and P Diddy, things that young people understand,” Jay observed.

Some older patrons might be in the habit of seeing things in terms of black and white, rather than the show’s grays and a sliding scale of ethical and moral dilemmas the employees of the Hotel Bel Air find not only on the job, but in their quest for fulfilling lives. Each generation of young people brings a different set of expectations when seeing a play, and responds most strongly when they see their attitudes, choices, and responses on stage. The choices can also raise the hackles older generations who do not see things the same way. Some theatre-goers flock to shows that reflect their lives, and others relish those that explore other truths, other experiences.

“Anytime we have had a younger audience we have had great responses. It kind of fuels the show a little bit, you feel like the audience is with you and not asleep,” he observes.

Growing Up

“As a kid I was always drawn to music,” as Jay recalls, “I think my first theatrical experience was Disney on Ice, and I didn’t even ice skate. The theatricality of it all excited me. I just knew then that this was what I wanted to do. I tried every sport in the world to please my father and I just wasn’t very good at any of them.

“Growing up in Texas, of course, everyone goes to church, and I sang in a choir, where someone told me about a children’s theatre group called Kids Who Care. I auditioned for A Midsummers Night Dream, the Rock Musical and I got a part.”

One look at Jay and you know exactly which part he got: “Puck. There the rehearsals were a three month process, and we finally got to tech and there were the lights, fog and music.”

It was Jay’s come-to-Jesus moment. “That first day of tech was the ultimate magical moment. I was truly transformed. I decided then that, yes, this was it, theatre was what I wanted to do,” he remembers.

Of course growing up in Texas is not the place for a sensitive kid. In the macho environment of football, shotguns and ostentatious living, Johnson endured the cruelty that comes with not fitting in to that culture. “I went to a huge public school for the first ten years of my education. I was not a popular kid. I was totally made fun of that whole time, and until I found theatre I was kind of sad, lonely and depressed. But the second I found it, I was in my element, and I became the cool kid. All of my friends from that period are from that theatre company, not the high school. It’s a classic, even clichéd story, but true.”

Yes, it is one that you hear over and over in the theatre world. And that pain and isolation and its resultant creativity provides a foundation for entry into the craft. It’s something those who were the cheerleaders and quarterbacks seldom have draw on. Difficulty spurs growth.

“It was at Casa Manana that I started working professionally at age 13. Thanks to them I earned my Actors Equity Card at age 17. Being hard-headed and stubborn, there was only one school that I wanted to go to and so I applied to NYU and got in. I didn’t want to go anywhere else. With our without NYU I was going to move to New York in any case, but it worked out,” Jay recalls.

Still, doesn’t life teach an actor more than any school can? “Yes, life has taught me more. And beyond acting, dance has become a great love of mine. It was in high school that I picked up that dance background – mostly jazz, but the other forms as well. I also decided that if I wanted to be on Broadway, I would need some extensive vocal training which is what I got at NYU, at the Steinhardt School.”

Jay Armstrong Johnson seems to have it all: energy, talent, smarts, but surely there is something he wishes to have more of. “Because I had my dance training in high school, and voice training in college, I really want to get deep into continued acting training. I want the technical tools advanced studies will bring, since most of my acting is rooted in dance and music. I am a firm believer in education, and honing the craft. It may be art, and practice makes perfect, but for an actor there is always more to learn. Acting is like a palette of colors to choose from,” he says. And it appears he wants to mix some new ones in the future.

We talked briefly about two totally unrelated schools of acting, the acting style of Steppenwolf, and that of playwright David Mamet. He tells actors to stay out of school, and not fall into the trap of “interpretation,” “sense memory,” and The Method. Whether Mamet the writer should be taken as gospel is debatable. Over lunch one day, Mamet told me he likens critics to ants as a picnic. Unavoidable, but more of an annoyance than a threat. Too bad I didn’t have a recorder back then.

Hair on Broadway, A Chorus Line National Tour

It is only in the past couple of years that Jay Armstrong Johnson has come to the attention of the theatre establishment, having toured in the role of Mark with A Chorus Line, and as the understudy for Claude last year in the Diane Paulus revival of Hair. He did get his time on stage, and some observers said he outshone the actor he understudied for. “No way I could ever surpass Gavin Creel,” he shot back, “There’s nobody as good as him. Hair was such a crazy, crazy experience. Before that I was part of the national tour of A Chorus Line (where they say he was making his name, one city at a time) and just wanted to get back to the city.

“So I auditioned, and then went back home for a while to see the family, not even realizing that my idol, my hero, my role model, Gavin Creel was playing the role I was to eventually understudy. One of my first Broadway shows was Thoroughly Modern Millie, and watching him in that I decided that was who I wanted to be, and to emulate. He was my guide, I studied his work on stage every day.

“So with Hair, it was in the third week of previews, we had not had any understudy rehearsals or blocking, they were trying to get the show up on its feet, so we didn’t have any time to rehearse and I was pretty surprised to find myself out there filling in for him. Hair changed my life.

“It is the show that has changed my life, and honestly, I don’t see how anyone can see it and not be changed in some way. It’s that kind of an experience. It’s amazing how it has stayed so fresh ever since the sixties. And I got to play Claude about 25 times during the run,” he recalled.

One of the requirements for Hair, was of course, a full head of hair. “Oh that ‘fro was something else again. it became a trademark of sorts,” he laughed. “As to which style of hair I prefer, I’m not sure, it changes with the role. But when I was in the show I was totally engulfed by and loved my long hair.

“One of the things, though, is that in show business you get pigeon-holed by your looks, and if they’re not looking for long hair that day, you’re out of luck, sorry that’s not our leading man. My Hair days are gone, I had to cut it all off, and I guess that’s ok,” he chuckles. “I am now able to play a wider variety of things.”

Of the many roles he has played, I was curious as to his take on Floyd Collins, the musical by Adam Guettel. He played the title role in an NYU production, and his voice seemed to fit beautifully with the part. Guettel is a demanding composer, sometimes even verging on the classical as with Light in the Piazza.

“It’s been the number one theatrical experience I have had so far, and I would love to be given the opportunity to play it again down the road.” Chris Innvar played it off Broadway in 1996. It’s a challenging, wonderful role. “I was thrilled to meet Chris a few nights ago, he’s really awesome, and he’s here for Absurd Person Singular.

“One of my dreams – now realized – was to appear on Broadway, and my other one is to play that role again.”

“There is so much to still learn. When this run is finished I will go back to New York, do some surprise performances, take class, work even harder on singing, dancing and acting. The past two years are only a start.”

There is little doubt that this young actor will strut his stuff on Broadway and beyond.  In fact he will be appearing in New York at on Monday, September 20th as part of Jim Caruso’s Cast Party a wildly popular weekly soiree that brings a sprinkling of Broadway glitz and urbane wit to the legendary Birdland in New York City every Monday night. It’s the sort of fun solo appearance theatre people love, supplemented by lots of audience sharing of the mike.

For Jay, becoming a good actor is a never ending process, and having a good attitude about the hard work involved is the first secret of success. Keep an eye on Jay Armstrong Johnson. He’s well on his way.

Jay Armstrong Johnson – Resume

Updated Credits for JAY ARMSTRONG JOHNSON – Broadway: . On the Town (Chip), Hands on a Hardbody (Greg Wilhote), Catch Me If You Can (Frank Jr. Standby), Hair (Original revival cast Claude u/s). Off-Broadway: Wild Animals You Should Know (MCC), Working (Drama Desk Award) Prospect Theater Co. Other New York credits: The Most Happy Fella (Herman), City Center Encores!, Sweeney Todd (Anthony Hope), Avery Fisher Hall, with New York Philharmonic; taped for PBS. First National Tour: A Chorus Line (Mark). Regional: The Last Goodbye (Romeo), The Old Globe, On The Town (Chip), Barrington Stage Co; Pirates! Gilbert and Sullivan Plunder’d (Frederick) The MUNY; Hands On A Hardbody (La Jolla Playhouse); Pool Boy (Barrington Stage Co); Hairspray (Link Larkin) Weston Playhouse; West Side Story (Baby John). 35mm: A Musical Exhibition (on iTunes). TV/Film: Sex & the City 2, “Law & Order: SVU”. @Jay_A_Johnson on Twitter and Instagram.

This article first appeared in 2010 and has been updated, most recently on October 2, 2014.

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